Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XCII

Here are four excerpts from a book I recently read, "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis--and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance," by Ben Sasse:

At one level, happiness is an equation that has “needs met” as the numerator and “presumed total needs” as the denominator. One way to achieve temporary happiness is to invest more energy seeking to fill up the numerator. But another way, a more stable way, is to reflectively guard against the growth of one’s denominator of needs, and to cultivate the habit of gratitude at the satisfaction of real and basic needs.

Thoughtful travel is an obligatory part of education because travel “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” It is somewhat like the exercise of assigning a student in a debate the task of arguing for the position that they reject. Articulating both sides of an issue doesn’t just broaden your mind—and strengthen your own argument, if it survives the scrutiny—it also treats your interlocutor with dignity. 

Shorter version: Walking a mile in another man’s shoes, in his country, produces understanding, empathy, and healthy doses of self-reflection, self-criticism, and gratitude.

Unsurprisingly, the first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. Until about the year 1000, the most literate men in Europe belonged to the clergy, which had a monopoly on this book. Almost everybody else learned through icons and images. Before Gutenberg, churches chained down their Bibles, in part because they were so expensive and difficult to produce, but also to limit their circulation and who was permitted to read them. The cheap and quick production afforded by Gutenberg’s press democratized and universalized reading, transforming hierarchies of knowledge and ultimately all of society. The shift from a manuscript culture to a print culture was radical. With manuscripts, the emphasis was on preservation. If you had the only existing copies of Cicero’s Letters or Euclid’s Geometry, you weren’t likely to share these rare, fragile artifacts. Instead, you kept them safe from vandalism and decay. The physical book was often more important to its owner than the ideas therein. You would want to ensure the survival of those manuscripts for subsequent generations of elite, full-time scholars. 

After Gutenberg, print culture made copying simple. If you were a printer, you had different incentives: to see your work spread far and wide. Preservation became less of a concern than propagation. Books were transformed from heirlooms to tools. And ideas were freed to become viruses, for good and for ill.Before Gutenberg, books were printed in Latin, the language of scholars, and thus accessible only to the elites. With the advent of the printing press, it became profitable to bring books to the masses in their own languages. Translating boomed. A new German translation of the Bible arrived in the late 1460s. Then an Italian one in 1471; then “Dutch in 1477, Spanish in 1478, Czech around the same time and Catalan in 1492”; then many French innovations with abridged Bibles; then dozens of competing German editions in the early 1500s. It is impossible to understand the Protestant Reformation of 1517 and beyond without seeing it against the backdrop of frenzied translation activity that created so many more conversations about this book. More translations inevitably meant more competing views, more debate.

A republic is the only form of government, the only social arrangement, that seeks to make individuals preeminent in their own self-control, their own self-possession. A republic is thus at once liberating and scary. For it both requires and assumes adults, not subjects. And this is a rare state of affairs in political history. 

Children do not govern themselves, of course. They don’t know how to. They have to be taught and they have to learn self-governance. In a healthy society, they migrate from a phase of parental control to partial self-control, and then to full independence. These developmental and transitional phases should be periods when they are thought of as “little citizens”—people on the way to becoming self-controlled. We don’t think this way today. 

Well-functioning citizens share a collective memory of how and why and toward what ends our polity came to be. Adult-citizenship presumes a substantial level of self-awareness and impulse control; it knows both rights and duties. Sadly, the United States today suffers from widespread collective amnesia. As a result, many Americans coming of age today don’t understand the country they’re inheriting. They’ve not heard our story. And thus many of them don’t even know what they don’t know.
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